Workplace bullying of the clergy has become "rife", according to the union Unite which says priests are being picked on by bishops and parishioners. The union has set up a hotline where the clergy can report abuse, and says it deals with up to 150 cases a year.

"Bishops have got a lot nastier", says the Reverend Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers branch of Unite. Bullying frequently comes from superiors within the church who may be under financial pressure.

"A bullying case can go on for a long time", says Terry Young, a former minister who runs the helpline. "They're picked on for everything they do wrong, so in the end the person runs around terrified. You see these people unsupported, driven into depression and a nervous breakdown."

Mr Barlow said: "Bishops can treat people shamefully. The most common experience is a priest gets called in for a pastoral chat, to 'see how things are going', within half an hour he's telling you he's going to fire you or take your licence away".

Parishioners can also carry out the bullying, according to Unite, citing the case of a priest in rural Worcestershire who claims he was driven out by a campaign of hate.

The Reverend Mark Sharpe resigned in October as rector of Teme Valley South saying he was picked on by members of his community after he tried to tackle financial problems within the parish.

"It started with the tyres getting slashed, ended up with a dog mysteriously dying, the car being smeared with excrement, and broken glass across driveway. There was intimidation, people swearing at you. A month ago I had the lights pulled off the car," Mr Sharpe said.

The Bishop of Worcester has refuted claims by Mr Sharpe that his parish was "toxic" calling the allegations "dreadful". The Diocese declined to comment further, pending a hearing to consider the allegations later this year.

When Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was asked about the issue of bullying at a recent TUC conference, he admitted there was a problem.

"The question of bullying, I'm glad you raise it because I think that's unfinished business for us and I'm very glad that it's flagged up," he said.

The union says priests are vulnerable, because they are classed as self-employed office holders, which means they are exempt from the protection offered by employment law. This means they cannot claim unfair dismissal, or seek protection under health and safety laws.

Although over 30% of OCICBW...'s readers are based in England, they rarely comment, for obvious reasons. But when they do, and when they email me privately, the correspondence from the priests among them is predominantly about how they are bullied by their bishops and their congregations, and how they have become terrorised into inertia. The Church of England is dying and one of the main reasons for this, in my opinion, is clergy fear. They should be leading their congregations forward in mission and outreach. In stead, they cower in their studies hoping they haven't accidentally upset somebody at parish breakfast or said something in their sermon that might have upset the reactionaries in their congregation.

Since the 1980s, the Church of England has increasingly hired bishops who have a secular, managerial mindset. They are businessmen. This means that the parish clergy no longer have anyone to turn to for pastoral help and support. At the moment, if they are scared of dogs, their only option is to tell it to a rottweiler.



  1. Well! I certainly understand about bullying bishops. At ths stroke of midnight at the new year, I became finally free from mine. (Deo gratias!)

    “Bishops can treat people shamefully. The most common experience is a priest gets called in for a pastoral chat, to ‘see how things are going’, within half an hour he’s telling you he’s going to fire you or take your licence away”.

    Exactly what happened to me. And now that my relationship with him is officially severed, I don’t have to pretend it’s not so anymore.

    My prayers for all who are in this same predicament remain earnest and will be so until my dying day.

  2. Ellie, I’m happy you’re out from under your bullying former bishop’s thumb.

    MadPriest, I understand why English clergy hesitate to comment here, but surely the lay folks are not fearful.

  3. Not always the case Grandmère, lay people who have express leadership roles can also be subject to the same stuff. My personal experience as a lay employee was of clergy telling tales of me to the Bishop or clergy dumping problems on me that they could/would not deal with.

    But it is just as true that congregations can be brutalised by a minority to persecute their clergy. In my last parish I accompanied the vicar all the way through to disciplinary hearings in front of the bishop all because of the vindictive petty nastiness of one man.

  4. I think it is a great shame when priests do not feel free to say what is on their mind and to freely report the trials and tribulations they are subject to. Bullying survives best in secret. I’ve been very fortunate in the bishops I’ve served under.

  5. TheMe, I started my blog when I was still serving on the vestry of my church, but the worst consequence for me was that I could be thrown off the vestry, which was not very likely.

    One of a bishop’s duties is to pastor the clergy in the diocese. It’s unfortunate that not all bishops take the duty seriously. I know that you don’t agree, MadPriest, but I believe that the CofE would be better off if it were not the established church. Of course, I’m a foreigner, so what do I know?

  6. Nope, Mimi is Louisianan. You want pizza, New York, New Jersey, Boston or Chicago is where you look. Anywhere else, just remember there is a reason why Pizza Hut survives.


  7. Of course I did not mean expense reports, but those too can tell an important tale. Regardless, not all approaches to management are created equal. If the church insists on, inadvisably, IMHO, taking on a business model, it should really take on a model in which “management’s” chief aim is to ensure the success of the “managed.”

  8. Some years ago Ken Haugk wrote a fine book called ‘Antagonists in the Church ‘, which dealt with the problem of people who like to throw their weight around and bully others in congregations. This article gives a sense of the flavour of the book. I found it very helpful in dealing with a situation I was in at the time with a bully in our parish.

    I don’t think bishops can be the pastor to their clergy. When you have the right to hire and fire, you can’t also be the pastor. Other denominations handle that a lot better than we do. Mennonite Church Alberta, for instance, firmly separates the roles of area CEO and pastor to the clergy, Their ‘conference minister’ can be a real pastor to the clergy (and to the congregations, too) because he doesn’t have the power to tell anyone to do anything.

  9. Hi, Jim. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) I’m not a priest. I’m a solemnly professed solitary nun. My life profession was in Oxford in 1994 with, interestingly, Rowan Williams presiding (who was bishop of Monmouth at the time.)

    I was employed by the Diocese of Oklahoma from April of 1996 through Dec. 31, 2009, having been invited here by the previous diocesan but now retired bishop.

    Technically, my position was eliminated for budgetary reasons. After unbelievably difficult struggles with the National Church folks (difficult because my bishop refused to cooperate) I have managed to retire officially. That means I’m able to get early retirement group medical insurance although I must pay for every penny of the premiums myself.

    No, I’m not really looking for another bishop at this time. The very idea is rather radioactive to me at the moment. I may change my mind later but right now I have a lot of healing to do (not to mention coming up with a way of making up for my lost income.)

  10. Well, Tim, maybe bishops can’t be THE pastor for their clergy (in absolutely all situations, that is) but they can certainly be pastoral. I know our retired bishop managed to do so quite wonderfully.

    I must read that book you mention.

  11. The trouble with having a pastor without any authority is that they can’t help you out practically. In fact, they are just a counsellor. I find that my pastoring involves more practical intervention than spiritual. There is no reason why a bishop shouldn’t be a pastor (in fact, that’s their job). However, they would have to love those they are responsible for, not just view them as human resource units and figures in an accounts book.

  12. “…they would have to love those they are responsible for…”


    That was true of our retired bishop. Yes, he could play hardball when he needed to (and did in cases of clergy misconduct) but he truly loved his clergy. And so he was a very effective pastor, actually. Ditto with clergy spouses. (I was chaplain to clergy spouses during his tenure so I was privy to a lot of the ways in which his pastoral approach often helped matters.)

    No, I’m not saying he was perfect or some kind of saint but he did NOT view human beings as commodities.

  13. I’m looking at my copy of “Antagonists in the Church” sitting on my bookshelf in my church office right now. I bought it years ago on recommendation for a specific place and I found it invaluable and very practical. In fact, I take a page from one of the chapters when I’m chairing a meeting that might become contentious even though I’m not faced by antagonists.

    I also have a favorite expression: He/She is taking up space in my head without paying rent.

  14. Pastoring the clergy and religious under their authority IS the job of the bishop. If they have become CEOs, then that is just plain wrong. That’s the sort of power within the religious structure that Jesus taught should be turned upside down.

  15. I’m often left wondering what, if anything, the church has to do with what Jesus actually taught…I see some of that in individual parishoners, but the church as a whole group..not so much.

  16. I’ve put down my thoughts a greater length on my blog.

    Mimi, I think what you are saying is true theologically, but in practice I don’t think it’s realistic. I’m sorry, but I’m just not going to bare my soul and tell my deepest and darkest secrets to the person who has the power to hire and fire me. I’m not saying bishops can’t be loving and caring; all Christians are called to be loving and caring. But to me, being a pastor means more than that.

    Jonathan,your pastoring is different from mine; most of mine is spiritual guidance, mentoring, and counselling. And I find it hard to believe that if I don’t have the authority to tell anyone in my congregation to do anything, that means I can’t be a pastor to them. I beg to differ.

  17. Bishops here have only two jobs according to the ordinal, to ordain and to confirm. Anything else is affectation and they will probably not be good at it. Doesn’t matter how many years of theology you study it will not make you a good business manager.

  18. I have not myself clear, Tim. I’m not on about telling people what to do. I am on about sorting out problems. This is usually stuff like getting pensions sorted out and making sure social services are sorting out Mrs X’s home access problems. I’ve got a wife when I want sympathy and understanding. I require my pastor to be able to sort out messes and look after my work needs.

  19. I suspect that all provinces of the Anglican Communion have bishops whose consecration to the episcopate has been, shall we say, “unfortunate,” including The Episcopal Church. (Although we have recently lost a few of them to schism, thank you, Jesus.) And I’m sure that there are bishops in the Church of England who are exemplary in their episcopal ministry and a blessing to the whole church. But on the whole I would hold up an almost tediously open process leading to election by the clergy and representative laity of a diocese, against a backroom process of nominations to the Prime Minister (for God’s sake!) to be presented to the Queen for her rubber stamp. If there is anything the rest of us can do to help you folks fix this, MP, we are certainly willing to try, but in the end it’s a CofE problem and you have to be the ones to deal with it. Is Establishment really worth it?

    (Come on over, MP, the grass really is greener on this side! Mostly.)

  20. Themethatisme: “Bishops here have only two jobs according to the ordinal, to ordain and to confirm. Anything else is affectation and they will probably not be good at it.” And I’ve run into bishops who did an appalling job at confirmations.

    TEC bishops have a lot of other responsibilities as set forth in the BCP and constitution and canons.

  21. In a voluntary organisation that is under-funded there is a lot of room for power-play at all levels. Let’s not get hung-up on Bishops alone. It isn’t biblical and it isn’t right, but it is, sadly, very human, and the bullies are often completely unaware of the effect of their actions. I think I’ll revert to my standby position, and pray.